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Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Flavors of the Caribbean

We're getting ready to go  on a wonderful 14 day vacation in the Caribbean.  As part of the anticipation, I've been doing some research on Caribbean cooking.

The flavors of the Caribbean started very simply in the kitchens of local women who were creative in using what they had on hand.   Most of the women did not have an abundance of food, and fixing meals on a daily basis meant lots of flexibility in the preparation and ingredients.

The essence of Caribbean cooking is found in the use of fresh foods enhanced by island spices and herbs. The particular regions of each island serve as an incubator for various products.

For instance in the mountainous region of Jamaica are found the most  flavorful coffee beans. On the coastal areas of the Caribbean islands coconut trees are abundant, and the lowlands of the Caribbean produce sweet pineapples. Vast sugar cane fields are found within the interior of Caribbean islands such as Barbados.
No matter the island, good home cooked Caribbean cooking style always starts with staple local ingredients: Fresh fish, vegetables, tropical fruits, and chicken.

The distinct flavor of the Caribbean comes alive when the addition of spices, coconut, mangoes, passion fruit, limes, papayas, guava, cassava, apples, breadfruit, yams and peppers are added to these staple ingredients.

Caribbean residents use limes much in the same way lemons are used in the US. Lime is a favorite marinade for fish, and most locals will tell you the lime starts cooking the fish.

Even with all this, it is nearly impossible to define "Caribbean cooking" for there is no one type of food that is unique to the region. You just can’t come up with one definition that would encompass every islands style, culture and cooking techniques.

Conch recipes are a favorite of the Bahamas.  Cuba is known for tasty black beans and rice.  Jamaica is the land of jerk cooking and seasoning.  Barbados favorite dish is flying fish.  Puerto Rican cooks are famous for their flavorful chicken and rice dishes.  The French Caribbean islands of St Barts, Martinique and French St Martin serve up fine creole dishes.

Nutmeg is used to flavor deserts in America, but this spice is often combined with other native island spices to produce an altogether different, yet somewhat recognizable flavor.  The distinctive flavor of Jamaican Jerk comes from allspice, a spice not usually associated with a meat marinade.  The Cayman islanders have a favorite chocolate cake recipe to which they add spicy peppers.

Many of the best tasting Caribbean sauces are made up of sweet fruits such as orange, papaya and mango, along with spicy, hot peppers.   Coconut milk serves as a base for many popular stews, soups, and sauces. Even oregano and garlic are used with citrus marinades.

And of course Rum is a favorite ingredient throughout the Caribbean, and is applied liberally in marinades, soups, deserts, and sauces.

Once back from our trip and after having tasted the native versions, I can't wait to come back and add some Caribbean flavor to our dinner table!

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